Is Best Picture Now "Best Unpopular Picture"?
The flipside of the Academy going out of their way to celebrate "popular film" is that they are inadvertently critiquing themselves. To have to make a new category is almost to admit that what they typically honor isn't really all that popular or relevant to the people. That is, on its own, a PR disaster, calling into question what the "Best" in "Best Picture" means. Is Best Picture now Best Unpopular Picture? Best Niche Picture? At the very least, it's "Best Picture Minus Anything That Isn't A Typical Oscar Film".
But it also ignores that most Oscar films are popular. Film social media network Letterboxd's top-rated films of 2017 included Call Me By Your Name, Lady Bird, Phantom Thread, Get Out, The Shape of Water and Dunkirk, all of which were nominated for Best Picture. La La Land made $446 million worldwide, The Revenant $533 million, Gravity $723 million, three movies that won Best Director, were nominated for Best Picture and overall got 16 wins from 36 nominations. They bridge the gap, like a big hit movie should do. Would these be moved to the lone "popular" category in future, or does the lack of spandex make them intrinsically unpopular?
The Academy Has Already Failed Before
The Academy didn't always ignore popular cinema. In the 1970s and early 1980s, the likes of Jaws, Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark were nominated for Best Picture (with the latter two also netting Best Director nominations for George Lucas and Steven Spielberg respectively). None of them won, but they likewise lost out to crowdpleasers (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Annie Hall and Chariots of Fire) and came alongside wins for The Godfather and Rocky. At this point, things looked balanced and to a degree representative of audience tastes.
That changed in the 1980s after the collapse of New Hollywood - the wave of creativity that bred Lucas and Spielberg - split the moviemaking system into mainstream popcorn and indie arthouse, something that grew over the next decade and was cemented by dumb fun blockbusters and the concrete definition of "Oscar bait". You occasionally had breakthroughs like Titanic or The Lord of the Rings, although their record-breaking sweeps only show how insurmountable and unavoidable their successes were - the Academy en masse threw up their hands and gave some blockbuster love because it had to. Mostly, it was same-old-same-old.
The biggest attempt to fix thing came in 2009 with the expansion of the Best Picture nominee list to ten, in response to the snubbing of films like The Dark Knight (which was nominated for Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Makeup, Sound Mixing and Visual Effects, and won Best Supporting Actor and Sound Edited). This started well at first. District 9, Up, Avatar, Inception and Toy Story 3 all got Best Picture nominations in the immediate two years. Since then, however, the pool has become populated with the exact same sort of movies as before, just more of them (any number between five and ten, depending on votes). Occasionally there's an unexpected breakthrough - Gravity, Mad Max: Fury Road, Get Out - but they must do so with a strong presence in other, often technical categories to stand a chance.
What we're seeing now, almost exactly ten years on from The Dark Knight, is another attempt to force change that will only damage the discussion. The Academy accidentally built a system to be more inclusive then co-opted it to instead honor more of the same, and while this latest move is an attempt to correct that, it's really just another step in the wrong direction.